Why soft power is not enough to explain scholarship investments in China-Africa relations (besides vague applications of the concept)

In a new United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization Global Education Monitoring Report published this week, 16% of the total scholarships for Africans was sponsored by the Chinese government. The report states (on page 295) that “the Chinese government, through various agencies, was the single largest provider, with over 12,000 opportunities annually.” 

This is congruent with assessments that academics (here and here) have been making for a while now but puts into perspective, comparatively, where other countries stand. The report indicates (on page 279) that “the next largest government providers were South Africa, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom, Turkey, Egypt, India, Germany and Japan.” 

I will note that the U.S. is terribly behind (fifth on the list of OECD countries which does not include many top scholarship funders), but that’s not the focus of this post. 

It is not surprising that the PRC is leading the way with scholarships for international students. Education diplomacy is an old tool in the norm-making, narrative-changing, and power-projecting toolkit (see Chapter 3), but understanding PRC’s increasing investments in scholarships sponsored for African students as a soft power cultivation measure is only a surface-level  reading. 

The Chinese Ministry of Education report on international students released broad statistics in 2019 which are very helpfully put together by Dr. Victoria Breeze in this table. The upward trend is clear when looking at the total column.

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Indeed, soft power can explain some of the objectives and returns on investments that the PRC stands to gain from its human capital investments in Africa (and elsewhere), but not all of them. Scholarship programs whether Fulbright, Schwarzman, Yenching academy or other public diplomacy initiatives seek winning hearts and minds (albeit via highly selective processes). Influence through positive perception and attraction (produced by living in, exploring, and learning about cultures, language, and societies) is often viewed as the link between study abroad programs and soft power. Attraction is important but there is a lot more going on in government-sponsored scholarships.  

Several beneficiaries of these scholarships, though of course not all, are either already government civil servants or potential candidates for government jobs when they return to their countries of origin. Testimonies from those who have attended school in China (in dozens of interviews I’ve conducted over the years or in posts like this one), suggest that both in the short and long-term, scholarship beneficiaries work to improve relations between their governments and China. Some of the concrete ways where this is observed is in helping with translating official communication and documents between relevant government agencies. In countries in Africa that are not Anglophone, for instance, communicating with Chinese counterparts can be massively complicated. Having civil servants with high level of proficiency in Mandarin can facilitate smoother communications and increase collaborations. 

Yet, as noted in the UN Global Education report, for these scholarships to turn into proper human capital investments, they have to translate into job access, income-earning positions, and overall lead to improving living conditions of their recipients. Although not systematic or without flaws, there are a few examples of more-or-less efficient mechanisms that connect graduates to hiring firms. Several Confucius Institutes based in Africa for example, have worked in synergy with Chinese state-owned enterprises locally based and coordinated job matching guanxi for the scholarship recipients who are not already government employed. 

For African students who study in China (whether on scholarship or not), student life (especially through joining African Student Clubs) provides a whole host of opportunities to not only go through the experience of studying in China together but also to keep abreast of the latest issues, opportunities, and current affairs across the continent. During the pandemic, actions and platforms of solidarity among African, African American, and Caribbean students emerged.

At the same time, however, the pandemic has had its fair share of negative influence on international student life in Chinese campuses and cities. Even though the PRC, unlike other states, has not demonstrated executive authority-driven hostility towards foreigners, the reputation of study abroad in China has been significantly impacted during COVID-19 lockdowns.

If anything, it is actually the soft power element of China’s scholarship and education diplomacy that’s actually at the highest risk of being negatively outweighed by the negative impacts of COVID-19 lockdowns. Images and accounts of African students facing lockdown challenges, racial discrimination, and dwindling food supplies have made rounds of social media across the continent and provoked mixed messages between sentiments of solidarity mixed with disdain and fear voiced by students’ parents, families, and netizens. The outcries by the stranded students to their government representatives in the continent to organize evacuation plans made the round of global news outlets as well (see herehere, and here).

Testimonies from African students stranded in China are of course diverse and not homogenous. Some have fluctuated between expressions of solidarity with China at the beginning of the outbreak and outright frustration with the maltreatment they experienced after that lockdown was lifted in many Chinese cities. Indeed, despite early on messages and acts expressing solidarity (see here and here), many stranded students (see for example) expressed sentiments suggesting deep wounds due to lived fears and challenges they faced living in China. Without serious repairs to the broken trust, such negative perceptions can easily trickle down to larger groups of young people who might have eyed studying abroad in China.  

The soft power of these scholarships has suffered a serious blow due to the pandemic, however, we continue to see the Chinese government promise more human capital investments, professionalization trainings, and exchanges (if via teleconference) even if travel logistics have possibly been hampered for the remainder of 2020. The reason that these investments are not going away in the China-Africa relations anytime soon is that they go much beyond soft power. The networking power (especially through alumni) as well as knowledge production and norm-diffusion opportunities that human capital investments produce stand to remain strong and vital to China-Africa relations. 

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